My Father, the Sea Urchin Diver

Filmmaker Morgan Maassen looks at the impact of coronavirus on his father, Jeff Maassen, who he profiled for Vimeo's Stories in Place series.

I grew up in the small seaside town of Santa Barbara, California, and, after many years living and working abroad, I now proudly call it home again. Known as an escape for Hollywood’s elite and cherished for its profound mountains and immaculate beaches, our town has long been coveted by tourists and the media alike. Nestled amongst the hotels and restaurants, though, is a small yet prosperous harbor, situated perfectly for fishermen to operate out of with strategic access to the central coast and the Channel Islands. These fishing zones aren’t for the faint of heart; with treacherous reefs and wild winds everywhere off our coast, it breeds the most intense fisherman.

My father fell into fishing in his late teens, first working on the charter boats, then dipping his toes into sea-urchin diving, after which he slowly worked his way up to building and operating his own fishing boat. He spent a decade at sea before I was born, diving the coast and the islands for days or weeks at a time, sometimes only returning when the boat was full of sea urchin, or when more fuel and food was needed. The fisheries were usually closed in the summer, but winter and spring were spent harvesting sea urchin as frequently as the weather and swell would allow. Sea-urchin divers scour the reef, diving as much as 30 meters down, picking sea urchins out of the reef and floating them to the surface in bags, before hauling them into the harbor – alive – to be shipped to Japan within hours and sold as a top-quality meat to sushi restaurants, right next to the likes of bluefin tuna.

I was born in 1990, at the beginning of an incredible decade of conditions for fishing. I grew up worshipping my father’s career, one spent at sea on his little boat, challenging himself amongst stormy conditions, dangerous sea life, and exhaustively swimming against sweeping currents and through kelp forests. Spending time on the ocean with my father was an intimate look into him, and a window into the world of a modern-day hunter, gathering food and braving the ocean. Over the years of my life, I witnessed my dad have to adjust his business operation many times, for reasons as simple as urchins migrating from one reef to another, or as convoluted as a global financial crisis causing a downturn in demand. However, nothing has previously presented such an intense and disarming situation as the coronavirus, which has not only resulted in international demand and distribution grinding to a halt, but has also upended almost every other aspect of our lives and lifestyles.

With restaurants closed globally, consumer demand for sea urchin has all but ceased. Locally, our handful of sushi restaurants are closed with no re-opening date in sight. My father is in the same situation as most other fishermen, such as those pulling up fine rockfish or jumbo spot prawns, who counted so heavily on a well-established network of domestic and international distribution to disperse their niche seafood successfully.

Much to the surprise of almost everyone involved, though, optimism prevails, and it shines brightly down on our little harbor. The optimism is not based on vaccines or V-shaped economic recovery, but rather on the tangible stabilization of a new direct-to-consumer operation, one that had been pushed aside long ago. Fishermen of all boats and seafood are bringing in their catch and selling directly off the back of their boats and at the fisherman’s market, directly to the community and any restaurants still open. It’s a compelling movement, where demand and sales are not limitless at the behest of international distribution, but instead sustainable based off of community need and interaction.

Will sales be as great as before? Most likely not. Will the world return to what it was just months ago? Who knows. But will a stronger community emerge from the coronavirus, where customers meet their fisherman and their farmer? It’s already happened.

And as I adjust to my new lifestyle, a restless photographer and filmmaker who is now quarantined in the quiet town I grew up in, my appreciation for my father and his life reaffirms itself in waves of magnitude. While inching closer to retirement and facing an uncertain future, he’s doing his best, and he’s hunting, gathering, providing.

Morgan Maassen is a 29-year-old photographer from Santa Barbara, California. His interest in filmmaking started in his teens when he started experimenting with his family’s home video cameras at the beach, goofing off with friends and exploring the central coast. After working in the graphic design industry, he decided to pursue filmmaking and then photography as both a creative outlet and occupation. Growing up in and around the ocean provided him with his favorite subject to photograph; subsequently, the majority of his work is water-related and involves the oceanic lifestyle. He dreams of nothing more than visiting the next new country, capturing whatever beauty it may hold. Find out more at his official website.